It was supposed to be the year of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Way back when, the New York senator had a double-digit lead in the polls, the backing of a formidable political machine and a virtual lock on the Democratic nomination. Then came Jan. 3. The winner of the first electoral matchup—in Iowa, of all white-bread states—was a young, mixed-race senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama, whose national political experience totalled less than four years.
The sight of cautious, corn-fed midwesterners embracing a politician whose middle name is “Hussein” sent a tremor through the political establishment and ignited Obama’s extraordinarily disciplined campaign. Yet pollsters and pundits were unsure he could go the distance—and were quite sure Americans weren’t ready for a black president.
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They proved otherwise in November, electing the 47-year-old son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother to be the 44th president of the United States. Voters were moved by his call for change, vague and dreamy though it sometimes seemed, and impressed by his unflappable manner and sharp intellect. Even his personal story, so unorthodox for a presidential candidate—the searching boyhood in Indonesia and Hawaii, the hardscrabble community organizing, the lyrical bestselling memoir—took on an appealing sheen as the sitting President, so privileged and yet so ordinary, disappointed again and again.
None of which is to say that Obama’s rise was uncomplicated. Early on, an unsettling question: was he “black enough”? Too young to have marched for civil rights, too pragmatic to ally himself closely with polarizing figures such as Al Sharpton—could the first black president of the Harvard Law Review really appeal to average black voters? Yes he could, and did, earning 95 per cent of their vote on Election Day. He also won over educated whites, Latinos, and especially young voters; Obama carried 53 per cent of the total popular vote, even winning swing states such as Indiana, which last voted for a Democrat in 1964.
In retrospect, the bloody ground war for the Democratic nomination, which dragged on into June, turned out to be fortuitous: it gave Obama the time—and the push—he needed to polish his message of hope, build his war chest and amass armies of volunteers in states the Democrats had traditionally ceded to the GOP. And when Clinton criticized the inflammatory sermons of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Obama seized the early opportunity to deal with the controversy, delivering a riveting, high-minded speech on race relations. Then, after clinching the nomination, he made Clinton’s trademark bread-and-butter economic message his own—just in time for the financial crisis.
A gifted campaigner, Obama was also shrewd and occasionally ruthless. In a cynical yet crucial move, he broke his pledge to rely on public funding for the general election. While the Republican nominee John McCain stuck with the post-convention spending limit of US$84 million, Obama spent more than twice that. Likewise, after declaring he could no more repudiate his controversial reverend than his own grandmother, he cut ties with the preacher who had baptized his children. Later, the candidate who ran on a message of bipartisanship gave way to a president-elect whose first appointment was a sharp-elbowed infighter, Rahm Emanuel, to be his chief of staff.
But although Obama is more pragmatic than his idealistic oratory might suggest, as the election drew near his rallies took on a near-cultish feel, complete with starry-eyed youngsters and the likes of Oprah Winfrey hanging on his every word. McCain—whose own lurching, toxic campaign provided a stark contrast—was emboldened to label him more “celebrity” than leader.
The label didn’t stick. Somehow, even when manoeuvring politically, Obama managed to appear both steady and in control, ascetic even, with his diet of salmon, rice and broccoli. And there was much to admire about his campaign: the innovative use of technology, the record-shattering grassroots fundraising, the businesslike “No Drama Obama” ethic, the contagious excitement of being on the right side of history.
Late in the game, he told supporters a “righteous wind” was at their back. But in the end an economic tsunami—and a wildly unpopular Republican administration—propelled Obama to the White House. His occupancy will be as historic as the conditions he inherits: a devastated economy, a disastrous foreign policy, a nation diminished in the world’s eyes. How he will manage is anyone’s guess, but he has already lifted the country’s spirits and sense of possibility, while rewriting history and ushering in a Democratic majority in Congress—not bad for a man who, just a year ago, was viewed as the longest of long shots.
Pick up our Newsmakers ’08 Special Edition for all of this year’s leaders, lookers, liars, champions, charmers and chumps. In stores now.
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